The Medical Minute: Report Sparks Discussion About Reducing Cancer Mortality

HERSHEY, Pa. — The National Center for Health Statistics recently released a report on disparities in cancer mortality that provides researchers and health care organizations across the country with the information to spur improvement in local prevention efforts.

The report — which notes that cancer death rates fell by 20 percent over the past 35 years — also points out that death rates from specific kinds of cancer are on the rise, and that people in certain geographic areas or demographic categories are more at risk than others.

Gene Lengerich, associate director for health disparities and engagement at Penn State Cancer Institute, said the report highlights differences among geographic areas, inviting a deeper examination by local health care organizations of the causes behind the statistics.

“There are important differences that are relevant to research and prevention initiatives,” he said. “For example, our data show that the rate of death from breast cancer decreased from 1999 to 2014 in rural Perry County by only 7 percent. Yet the rate for all of Pennsylvania decreased by 20 percent. We need to find out why this is happening and what we can do to speed the decline.”

One factor could be access to accredited cancer programs that offer the latest treatments close to home. Another could be whether the population has health insurance that covers preventative screenings and makes treatments financially feasible when cancer is diagnosed.

Lengerich said an ongoing research project at the Cancer Institute is working to increase physical activity and improve nutrition in rural parts of central Pennsylvania, working in tandem with local churches and Penn State Cooperative Extension to tap into the community social structure.

The project offers a multi-level intervention that includes education, pedometers, walking clubs and incentives for people to be physically active.

“We need to address the physical inactivity that leads to obesity, which is a risk factor for cancer mortality,” he said. “Also, physical activity and improved nutrition during chemotherapy is important both for the effectiveness of therapy and reducing the risk of recurrence.”

The report also notes that not everyone between 50 and 74 years of age is being screened for colorectal cancer, a preventable cancer. Consequently, the Cancer Institute has been developing tailored strategies to address low rates of screening for this cancer among Latino populations.

The development of cancer survivorship programs and initiatives can also help reverse the disparities. Lengerich said that the rate of death from breast cancer among African-Americans in Dauphin County has barely decreased during the past 15 years, and survivorship programs may spur a decrease.

He said learning about such local disparities in cancer mortality is the first step toward improving the numbers and saving lives.

Learn more: Gene Lengerich discusses cancer disparities more in this video.

The Medical Minute is a weekly health news feature produced by Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center. Articles feature the expertise of faculty physicians and staff, and are designed to offer timely, relevant health information of interest to a broad audience.

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